During my junior year of college (1979-1980), I had the opportunity to study physics at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, Germany. Forty years ago this very month, I visited the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Czechoslovakia. It was my first time traveling to communist countries as I visited East Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden and Prague.

After leaving Hannover and crossing the inner German border, we were greeted by German shepherds and East German police armed with rifles. The border was just as you have seen in the movies; guard towers, tall fences, floodlights, and mines between the fences, ostensibly to keep Westerners from escaping to the East.

That border crossing into East Germany was scary, but not nearly as scary as crossing into West Berlin. The train stopped for a long time as the border police checked and rechecked passports, searching every nook and cranny for East German stowaways. They walked along the train with crowbars and mirrors, banging on the underside, looking everywhere for escapees. They were rightfully suspicious since about 200,000 East Germans had escaped after the Berlin Wall was finished.

After a few days in West Berlin, we crossed over to East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie. That crossing especially interested me as one of my teachers in Munich had escaped to West Berlin after the wall was built. The German Democratic Republic’s secret police must have heightened security after her escape because there was no way past their scrutiny that I could see.

Some memories are vivid to this day. East Berlin buildings were drab and dirty. Grocery stores had sparse food options and housed empty shelves. I still have some math and physics books I purchased in Leipzig, and the paper was pitiful. When the East German embassy screwed up the departure date on our visas, we holed up in our hotel room in Dresden for fear of being arrested. Our hostess had to go to the authorities to extend our visas one day so we could even leave this Democratic Republic.

Our fear was not irrational. Violence is foundational to communism. Somewhere between 70-100 million people were killed under communist regimes by execution, labor camps, etc. in the nineteenth century.

The hallmark of true socialism replaces Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the free market with the state as the means of allocating production. According to Marxist ideology, communism (the dictatorship of the proletariat) is preceded temporarily by socialism. Actual communism means the disappearance of state and family. Stalin himself admitted in 1936 the USSR never established communism and instead achieved a permanent socialist state.

Modern defenders of socialism like to make a distinction between communism and socialism, calling the heinous crimes of the USSR, East Germany, and Cuba communist practices not socialist ones. However, the socialism of the East was a much more consistent form than that of the West. The more consistently socialist ideology is practiced, the worse things get. Starvation, loss of liberty and violence against its citizenry is a core feature of socialism, not a bug in the system.

Many young westerners are taught that socialism has not been tried properly or consistently enough. The truth is, it has been, and the more consistent the application, the more the economic and political chaos. Look to Venezuela, Cuba, East Germany, and the USSR for more consistent socialism. In Europe and North America, naïve, well-intentioned Americans fantasize that socialist utopias will advance society; in actuality, it will move us closer to loss of freedom, starvation and government violence.

Take Venezuela, once the richest, most stable democracy in Latin America. The socialist policies implemented by Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro included nationalizing agriculture, electricity, water, oil, banks, supermarkets, construction and other sectors.

This resulted in food production falling 75 percent in two decades (even as the country’s population increased 33 percent), 44 percent unemployment, catastrophic nationwide blackouts, hyperinflation (10 million percent), food shortages and disease. The New York Times calls the crisis the worst the world has ever seen outside of war. More than 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country since the crisis began, many of them walking out on foot.

That is socialism, and calling it Democratic Socialism does not change its core features. The rise of Democratic Socialism in the United States scares me to death. I must believe that smart people like Bernie Sanders who refer to themselves as socialists know what it means and where it necessarily leads.

After she escaped the horrors of Soviet Russia in 1926, a USSR expatriate noted that “there is no difference between communism and socialism, except in the means of achieving the same ultimate end: communism proposes to enslave men by force, socialism — by vote. It is merely the difference between murder and suicide.”

Dale Courtney served 20 years in nuclear engineering aboard submarines and 15 years as a graduate school instructor. He now spends his spare time chasing his grandchildren around the Palouse.

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